Summary: Chapter 17

Ida’s narrative begins with an explanation of the context of her life. Ida describes her life as one characterized by resentment, and says that if she could begin her life again, she would learn how to say “No.” Ida tells us that she goes through her story daily, and though she may one day tell her tale to Rayona, no one realizes that it is she, Ida, whose life truly drives the story of her family.

When Ida begins her story, her mother is sick and her aunt, Clara, has just arrived to take care of her. Clara fascinates Ida, who watches her aunt unpack while Ida’s sister, Pauline, runs to get their father. Ida is troubled when she catches herself thinking that her mother’s sickness might be a good thing because it prompted Clara’s arrival. Clara has come at the insistence of Ida’s mother and over the objections of Ida’s father, Lecon. Lecon does not want Clara to come because he worries that other people on the reservation will shame him for wearing out his wife and not being able to care for her himself. Ida offered to drop out of school to care for her mother, but her father would not allow that either. Finally, Ida’s mother suggested that they tell everyone Clara was homeless and needed somewhere to stay. Ida’s father agreed because he knew the community would esteem them for taking in a homeless woman. Now that Clara has actually arrived, however, Ida’s father has begun to act strangely.

Ida is very friendly toward Clara, giving her gifts and taking her to a secret place on the roof to talk. Ida even tells Clara her secrets, such as her crush on Willard Pretty Dog, a boy in her class. Ida begins to do better in school because Clara helps her with her studies. Lecon is very friendly to Clara, doing chores for her and buying her gifts, but Pauline does not seem to like Clara and spends most of her time working with the nuns at the mission. Pauline owns a colorful beaded rosary and is extremely proud of it. However, when Clara comments that the beads of the rosary are most likely scrap beads left over from other regular rosaries, Pauline grows upset and throws the rosary away.

One night, just before Christmas, Ida returns home to find her mother and Clara in tears. Clara is dressed for travel and refuses to tell Ida what has happened unless Ida promises not to hate her. Ida promises and Clara tells her that she is pregnant by Lecon. That night Ida hears her mother, Lecon, and Clara arguing. Ida’s mother wants Clara to leave her house and her imminent departure mortifies Lecon because it will shame the family. To make things worse, Clara has told some of the men on the reservation that a baby is due at Lecon’s house. Clara points out that she has not said whose child it is, and that no one will suspect Lecon. Clara tells Ida’s parents about Ida’s crush on Willard Pretty Dog and says they could always claim it was Ida’s baby. Ida’s mother agrees to let Clara stay, but only if Ida agrees. Before her parents can even ask, Ida has already walked into the room and consented.

Ida’s family calls over the new priest at the mission, Father Hurlburt, who has a reputation for secrecy among the people at the reservation. They tell him that a drifter has raped Clara and that there is now only one way for them to preserve the family’s honor. Father Hurlburt is reluctant to go along but eventually acquiesces. He knows a motherhouse in Colorado where Clara and Ida can go to wait out Clara’s pregnancy. Clara tells Ida not to be sad, because they will have a lot of fun in Colorado.

Analysis: Chapter 17

Ida’s story begins to explain some of her quirks, which we have seen in Rayona’s and Christine’s narratives. As with the understanding we gain from combining perspectives on the frequent confrontations between Christine and Rayona, many of the cold and absurd things that Ida does make sense once we are able to look inside her head. Ida begins her story by mentioning her resentment, and everyone who knows her in the other stories is aware of this trait’s outward manifestations. In Rayona’s and Christine’s stories, Ida is almost always grumpy and cold; we now see that this exterior aloofness is due to Ida’s bitterness toward the friends and family who have used her. Ida also alludes to the fact that she has reasons for her resentment other than Clara, but she leaves this part of her story for later.

Another of Ida’s oddities explained in this chapter is her refusal to speak English except when absolutely necessary, which we now understand as Ida’s way of retaining some control over the world around her. “Indian,” as Rayona calls it, is the language that has molded Ida’s life, and is the language in which she can express herself most explicitly. When she is speaking Indian, Ida is in a realm that she can control, and her desire to face the world on her own terms, through her own language, is especially understandable in the context of the first paragraph of her story. Ida says that if she could live her life differently, she would do it by saying “No” more often, which gives us the sense that Ida feels she has often yielded to the will of others at the expense of her own goals and desires. By speaking Indian with others, Ida forces them to interact with her on her own terms in a way that she can control.

Ida says that she is the foundation upon which the stories of Christine and Rayona are built, and in her story we do see the beginnings of trends that are passed on to Rayona and Christine. Christine notes earlier how alike Rayona and Ida appear, but their similarities are more than just physical. For example, we find that as a child, Ida is very much like Rayona. In school, Ida is smart but refuses to put any effort into her studies, and forty years later we see Rayona display the same intelligence and the same disregard for the authority of the nuns at the mission school. Additionally, we see in Ida much of the same insecurity about appearances that we seen in both Christine and Rayona, and like Rayona, Ida frequently imagines living someone else’s life. When Ida thinks of Willard Pretty Dog, for example, she envisions herself taking on Clara’s features and having the type of beauty that will please him.

Father Hurlburt’s prominence in Ida’s story is somewhat unexpected, and the fact that Christine and Rayona recognize him only as a tangential figure shows how secretive Ida has been about her own life. Based on the earlier chapters, we would never suspect that Father Hurlburt is connected to the story of Ida and her family from the very beginning. This revelation is especially surprising when we consider that Father Hurlburt helps Ida and her family perpetrate the fraud that excuses Clara’s pregnancy, which means he is a big part of the one event that sets all three of the novel’s stories in motion. That Christine and Rayona are ignorant of Father Hurlburt’s role in their lives shows what a thorough job Ida has done in burying her past; even her putative daughter and granddaughter are unaware of the key players in their own histories.